Explore Noguchi’s “Memorials to the Atomic Dead” with Beyond the Bomb

In honor of the 76th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Beyond the Bomb visits the Noguchi Museum in New York City to explore what one Japanese American artist in particular thought about memorials and legacy as it relates to himself as an artist and for the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear violence around the world. Noguchi Museum curators Dakin Hart and Kate Wiener walk us through their special exhibit Noguchi’s Memorials to the Atomic Dead.

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Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), creator and namesake of the museum, was a biracial Japanese American sculptor. After the bombing of Hiroshima, he proposed a possible plan for a cenotaph memorial for the city that was never realized. Models of the memorial are on display in the museum and paired with a number of other works he created that explore nuclear issues such as Vishnu, Trinity, and Nuclear Haystack

Previously, in 1942, Noguchi voluntarily entered an incarceration camp for Japanese Americans at Poston, Arizona. It was there that Noguchi felt distinctly for the first time the state of “perpetual foreigner” many Asian Americans still face to this day. Regardless of his success as an artist and the acceptance he’d previously received in America, inside the camp he was just another Japanese and potential traitor. The experience deeply affected him and caused him to want to turn away from politics for good, but art is difficult to separate from politics, if not impossible. 

Beyond the Bomb fellowship alumni and volunteer Molly Hurley walks through the pieces with Dakin and Kate, sharing some of her experiences living in today’s America as Chinese American and finding commonality with Noguchi’s experiences as Japanese American in the mid-20th century being confronted by nuclear weapons. They are also joined by Yasmeen Silva, Beyond the Bomb’s Partnerships Manager.

In particular, Molly, Yasmeen, Dakin, and Kate explore the concepts of memorials and legacies: How do we create, maintain, and honor them? Noguchi erected his own museum to, in a way, memorialize his work, and Dakin and Kate now work hard to honor the legacy he most likely wanted to leave behind. But, how can all of us work to honor the legacies of atomic bomb survivors, hibakusha? They try to answer that question in today’s conversation.

This event was made possible by the generous cooperation of the Noguchi Museum and support from The Prospect Hill Foundation. Photos courtesy of Nicholas Knight. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / Artists Rights Society



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Audio Transcript

Molly Hurley: Hi, my name is Molly Hurley, I am a Fellowship Alumni and current volunteer with Beyond the Bomb, and today I’m speaking with Noguchi Museum Curators about the museum’s exhibit Noguchi’s Memorials to the Atomic Dead.

Dakin Hart: Hi I’m Dakin Hart, Senior Curator…

Kate Wiener: Hi I’m Kate Wiener, Assistant Curator….

Molly: Also joining us is Yasmeen Silva from Beyond the Bomb. 

Yasmeen Silva: Hi I’m Yasmeen Silva…

Molly: The timing of this conversation is apt, as August 6th and 9th mark the 76th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Noguchi used art to memorialize these horrible moments in history, there are those of us in the U.S. working to make sure something like that never happens again. Through this conversation we will explore Noguchi’s art, what it meant at the time, and the implications it can have now to understanding our past and realizing a world without nuclear weapons.

To give some context for this conversation, the United States currently possesses over 5000 nuclear weapons, making us nearly the largest arsenal in the world, second only to Russia. In third, China’s arsenal of nuclear weapons is below 400. This vast disparity is made only more upsetting when one considers the price of these weapons year after year, amounting to trillions of dollars. As it stands, the United States is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in war, and the president controls this arsenal with sole authority, meaning the decision to launch lies in the hands of one person. I’m sure we will unpack more of what’s happening as we discuss select pieces from the exhibit. 

Molly: We’re going to begin with the namesake of the exhibit, Memorial to the Atomic Dead. This is a model, correct? Can you give me a description?

Dakin: Originally the concept was called Memorial of the Dead for Hiroshima. This model was made later and titled Memorial to the Atomic Dead, trying to universalize the idea. Noguchi was given the opportunity to design a memorial in 1951 for the victims of Hiroshima. He came up with the concept, a much more complete concept, which we’re going to look at in greater depth in a minute, and then it was not executed at the time.

If you look at the way that it’s constructed, it will remind people who have seen images of the way that those early atomic bombs were constructed, of the shell of uranium around the core of plutonium. I think it has that presence that you know you’re looking at something somber, even at this size, but yes, it is meant to be a model for something much bigger.

Kate: Yes, I think that, also, one of the things that comes up in a lot of these works is just the way that they seem to both be held together in many parts. There’s this tension between precarity and balance, I think even if you don’t get to know the larger things that he might be referencing, just upon first impression, you also understand the power of this piece.

Molly: I wanted to touch on something you mentioned, how the title of the piece leads to universalize the experience, and the suffering that can come from just the existence of nuclear weapons. In Japan, an Atomic Bomb Survivor is called a Hibakusha. However, since use of the term came out in 1945, there has been a move to universalize that term to not be exclusive to Japanese survivors, but to include other victims of nuclear violence, such as uranium miners, people downwind of nuclear tests, and so on. Regardless of if Noguchi was aware at the time of the attempt to expand the usage of hibakusha to this worldwide usage, this naming speaks to the fact that he also wanted to expand his memorial to not just be for the Japanese atomic dead.

I’m intrigued by the idea that all we have left are these models of the proposed memorial. I think it’s a fascinating look at legacies, and how do you carry on stories even of just artwork? It verges on the discussion of the philosophies of the existence of museums and the purposes they serve.

Dakin: Noguchi certainly wanted his museum to be representative of a way of thinking and to be a reference point to some extent and have a changing reference point. Noguchi realized that even the things that don’t seem to change at all change enormously over time. 

The museum is in one sense for all time, but we also try to make sure that it’s staying in the flow of time and that it stays connected to contemporary thought, which is part of why we’re so happy you’re here. I think everybody needs to understand, Noguchi thought about atomic power and then obviously nuclear power supplanted atomic power and weaponry. His thinking did change and update, but it’s really interesting for us to hear the current thinking about nuclear arms control, all of that.

Molly: Now we can see a model of the complete memorial that Noguchi originally proposed for Hiroshima.

Dakin: There was supposed to be a chamber beneath the ground, where the cenotaph itself would be. A Cenotaph is a memorial without the dead. It was not meant to be a grave site, but a memorial. Noguchi talked about creating the womb to which we all would return.

When you look at this original intention – unlike the model we were just discussing-, you see the legs of it continuing down into the chamber underground. You see they get larger and larger. They’re growing down into the earth. Noguchi thought that we have somehow severed our connection to nature, and become out of scale to nature. He saw it as an expression of hubris. This is, I think, in a way Noguchi’s physical way of trying to, again cure that ill or recreate that bond.

Noguchi thought that we have somehow severed our connection to nature, and become out of scale to nature.

Yasmeen: When we talk about nuclear weapons, and the people who control them, we do think about it in terms of ego. You only need to think back to the “my button is bigger and more powerful than yours” debacle of 2018 to understand how these weapons are viewed, as toys and reputation boosters, not serious world altering things. These people, while understanding the consequences of nuclear use cerebrally, often act as if they would not be affected. That truly is hubristic.

Dakin: I would say, Noguchi thought about citizenship a lot, and in fact said that being an artist is like being a citizen of a different culture, a different world. What’s so extraordinary about Noguchi is that he took an experience that could have been debilitating, internment, and turned it into like this fortress of strength. For him, world war II, if you look at its inception in the Pacific, and then it’s the end of it in the Pacific, you’re looking at, for him, the two sides of his own background doing the most horrible and inhumane things to each other.

That for him was real rapture and was for him– made him want to step back and say, “Why? Why do we do this? Why do we behave this way? What are the motivations? What leads to this alienation from each other?”

He rooted a lot of it in our relationship to the planet that at least that’s how ultimately he saw an opportunity to try to heal those breaks and heal that alienation of root alienation. This next piece is a really great illustration of that. This is called Vertical View which sounds abstract – and the piece looks abstract, but if you think about this as the table of the surface of the earth, and it’s been thrown off its access, this is what the use of an atomic weapon does to us psychically, psychologically. It’s the whole world turned on its head and at the center we have something that looks like a bomb crater, and we have something that looks like a harbor. Hiroshima, like New York City, is a city of islands around the harbor. That’s what I always think of when I think of this. I think of this as his psychic landscape of what happens when you use power that’s capable of destroying the planet itself.

Molly: He was right, a nuclear detonation does have drastic effects on the entire planet. It is not just the local environment, it’s the whole world. There is a study that came out recently, in 2019 I believe, it found that even if a small nuclear war between India and Pakistan broke out – and small here means 150 or 250 smaller to medium-sized nuclear weapons – there would be worldwide famines from the ensuing nuclear winter.

So it would be a complete upturn of humanity, for sure. To put things into perspective, when I talk about small to medium-sized nuclear weapons. By small, I still mean larger than the size of the nuclear weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Under the Trump administration, there were plans to build new “low-yield nuclear weapons” which could be as small as maybe half the size of the Hiroshima bomb, but most were larger. The scale of what is small and large for a nuclear bomb is vastly different from what it was in the dawn of the nuclear age. I think most people don’t realize that. 

Dakin: Even the so called, small bombs dropped on Japan had far reaching impact. The fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you can find that planet-wide. We know that the radiation travels all over the planet, even from nuclear tests. The impact was always global and never just local.

Molly: For sure. And even if we want to bring it back home to the US, all surface nuclear tests that were conducted in the southwest United States. There’s a map that shows the spread of soot and radiation just carried by the wind in the atmosphere across the entire United States. That is within the United States alone. We’re not even mapping it beyond the borders of the US.

Kate: This makes me think of what you were saying about legacy, Molly. A lot of Noguchi’s work dealt with what you’re talking about, about being in a specific moment, but also thinking about legacy. In many ways, it also relates to his use of stone. He talked about stone as a congealment of time and as much as it was working with this material I think for him, it was also about getting a longer view on history of trying to think of lasting effects of how we fit into the larger Cosmos in geological time. Especially in terms of thinking about nuclear weapons just about the enormity of the destruction that transcends our own lifetimes I feel like it’s built into these pieces of working with the bedrock of earth.

Molly: As an Asian American myself,  I am curious to hear about how being mixed race may have affected Noguchi. He was born in 1904, so his existence as a mixed-race person was even more politicized than it would be today. That’s really saying something I think.

Dakin: I’d love to hear a little bit more about this for you. Being a person of color, how does that connect with anti-nuclear activism for you today?

Molly: During my traditional schooling nuclear weapons never crossed my mind until I came across a fellowship opportunity with Beyond the Bomb. I saw their posting and I was like, “Oh, nuclear weapons, I don’t know anything about it”. Except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I don’t even know how I know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki prior to Beyond the Bomb. That is also some of the reason for how absolutely, I guess mindblowing it was to learn about nuclear weapons and how intersectional they are.

As a Chinese-American and perhaps the most modern intersection for weapons issues is the fact that both the US and China are nuclear powers.

The fact that China also possesses nuclear weapons, that is another source of motivation for growing antagonism towards China. Now it’s the Chinese and Chinese-Americans in a way being targeted, while in Noguchi’s time it was Japanese and Japanese-Americans. And yet all Asians in a way are targeted, because we are often the same in other people’s eyes. That is one way that was very personal to me that nuclear weapons are deeply intersectional with what may on the surface seem like a totally unrelated topic. To me, US-China relations, and anti-asian sentiment are deeply influenced by the fact that both of these are nuclear powers. It activated me to organize. Do you think Noguchi considered himself an activist?

Dakin: For Noguchi what was so crushing about nuclear weapons is the idea of the best and the brightest minds in the country coming together and turning the peak of our understanding of physics and the natural world, towards destruction. For somebody who idealizes human potential in the way that Noguchi did, that’s a truly horrible thing.

I think that’s what turned him into– I don’t think he would have considered himself an activist but he would have said that he was very active in the battle against the thinking that produced nuclear weapons, and that has led to the arms race. 

But I think about where things are today and to me it is even scarier because it has been swept under the rug. I’m a lot older than you are. I grew up with drills where we had to hide under a desk because of the threat of nuclear war.

That was a long time ago. We used to be very aware of nuclear weapons, their existence, and the threats they pose, but they seem to have fallen between the cracks, and that makes it more intersectional in a way that’s terrifying because it’s hidden and we’re not seeing all of the knock-on effects. It does seem so often that the more intersectional something is, the more adversely it affects people of color, especially in the United States as you were saying.

Yasmeen: I think that is really what inspires us to work on this issue. The more we are able to bring it to light, to get people to understand how deeply it connects to other important issues, the more outraged and activated they become. It is not an accident that nuclear weapons issues and policy are kept out of the limelight these days. If people don’t know what risks they pose, or what is actually happening with them, then of course they won’t speak out against them. It is a deeply undemocratic process currently, and one that a few people profit off of enormously. The more you can expose it, the more you can legislate it. That’s what we try to do everyday.

Dakin: I think discussing the piece Vishnu will deepen this conversation of intersectionality and nuclear weapons. When I see Vishnu, I think of Vishnu as the plutonium core that was at the center of the very first atomic bomb.

Noguchi thought about J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is in some senses the godfather of the atomic bomb who was standing there in the first atomic detonation, the Trinity test, along with many of the other scientists recognized the moment that the bomb exploded, that they were involved in something that maybe was not right. Many of them might have had doubts before then but the enormity of watching an atomic explosion from so nearby solidified it. Oppenheimer is said to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita where at one point Vishnu states, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Really recognizing that he’s done something that has an implication for all of humanity. 

To me Vishnu not only represents the power and destruction at the center of each nuclear weapon, but that latent destruction that radioactive materials like this causes in communities here in the U.S. and abroad.

Yasmeen: To me Vishnu not only represents the power and destruction at the center of each nuclear weapon, but that latent destruction that radioactive materials like this causes in communities here in the U.S. and abroad. Many people may not realize that uranium mines are mostly located on or near Native land. And that the mines mostly employed local indigenous folk, with no warnings of radiation exposure, and no safety equipment. And no precautions in place to make sure that the radiation didn’t leak into water supplies, or the local communities. What we see now are indigenous, low-income, and people of color bearing the brunt of our nuclear ambitions from mining, testing, and storage of nuclear materials, and paying dearly with their health, their land, and their lives.

Dakin: Just like internment. The government started thinking about how to do internment, what did they look for? They looked for large tracts of isolated, federally-owned and controlled land, which ended up immediately in Native American reservations, which is why that’s where almost all the internment camps were because it’s a kind of an out of sight, out of mind, mentality, that the impact on the people who live there is an afterthought if it’s a thought at all.

Dakin: I’d like to turn our attention to Trinity as we mentioned this and the effects of other nuclear test. The uranium shell around the plutonium core has to be detonated in order to nuclearize the plutonium core. Noguchi, was so interested in the ephemeral, as much as he used stone to imply, as Kate said earlier, the congilments of time. He was also incredibly interested in ephemeral states.When we look at, for example, the shape of the memorial that we began with, before an atomic explosion, a nuclear explosion goes up into a mushroom cloud, you get a shell-shaped explosion that looks very much like the memorial does. It’s a dome. It’s basically a dome-shaped cloud but that passes in a nanosecond. What we’re seeing in Trinity is something again, that occupies a nanosecond. 

Yasmeen: And yet this nanosecond not only changed the world forever by ushering in the nuclear age, but impacted the lives of those living nearby irrevocably. People impacted by radiation from U.S. nuclear activities have been seeking recognition and compensation for their medical and suffering for years. Back in the 90s the U.S. passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. However, the list of eligible people is extremely limited, as we discussed radiation spreads. Currently, a downwinder who is eligible doesn’t even receive enough compensation to cover one round of chemotherapy. This is egregious. To add insult to injury this Act is set to expire in July 2022. We have one year to extend and expand the Radiation Exposure compensation Act to make sure the people affected can get coverage, and that that coverage is adequate. Beyond the Bomb is working with partners from these impacted communities to make sure this happens.

Dakin: We’ve been talking a lot about the implications nuclear weapons have on people but the art thus far hasn’t depicted it. Here, we have a character from Japanese folklore that was meant to be immediately recognizable to anybody who grew up in Japan. Okame is a young woman with a particular shaped face, who is generally a symbol of all that’s good in life. Noguchi turned her into the victim of a nuclear blast by swaddling her in bandages, and you get this totally chilling, single eye hole in the bandages.

Kate: I’m interested in other intersections that exist with nuclear weapons. Another existential threat that is present for so many people now is climate change. I think that it is interesting that it is this really slow process, but we’ve all been complicit in it for a very long time. Just having that out-of-scale relationship with nature and our responsibility for that, but I wonder just in your discussions of nuclear how you are all thinking about it.


Molly: Yes, absolutely. We think about climate change all the time. It is so deeply intersectional with anti-nuclear work. There are the very obvious intersections of climate change and nuclear weapons, which is the use of a nuclear weapon, and your nuclear winter globally and the devastation in the immediate areas of the environment that I talked about before. But we don’t even have to use a nuclear weapon to have environmental impacts. Just the maintenance, not to mention the almost 2 trillion dollar modernization of our nuclear arsenal that the U.S. is undergoing, accelerates climate change and impacts the environment, and honestly public health. If we think about the US military, if the US military were its own country, it’s the biggest polluter on earth. 

An unfortunate example of this intersection is The Marshall Islands, a location in the South Pacific, where for 12 years, we tested so many nuclear weapons of such large sizes that if you were to average out all of the nuclear explosions that happened in the Marshall Islands over the full 12 years of testing there, it is the equivalent of exploding a 1.6 Hiroshima-size version of bomb every single day, for 12 years straight in the Marshall Island.

Not only did this radiation affect the people of the Marshall Islands, who are still dealing with the horrific health impacts today, but also the service members who conducted and attempted to clean up the tests. The cleanup – as it were – consisted of this: As much of the radioactive earth and materials they could manage they pushed together and covered it with a concrete dome, called the Runit Dome. If sea levels continue to rise, the dome will erode and collapse – it is already beginning to and the U.S. refuses to take responsibility for the maintenance. When that happens all of the waste will spill into the oceans, further affecting the Marshall Islands and contaminating their islands and their people.

Dakin: And eventually the Pacific Ocean.

Molly: Yes, exactly. It will spread. Nuclear is never localized, it has global impacts, and here climate change and nuclear weapons are exacerbating each other.

Dakin: Obviously, it will connect it, then it spreads. I think that another Noguchi lesson is Noguchi thought like citizen of the planet. He was always thinking about global consequences. He was always thinking about the impacts on all of humanity. He cared very much about the localities that he was connected to personally. He had a lot more allegiance to the planet generally and in humanity overall.

Molly: I think if we all think that way a little bit we will have enormous power to change this world for the better. We all have the ability to step up and do something that positively impacts the world, even from our own backyard. 

I’d like to turn to a piece that I find very moving. This picture of Sculpture to be Seen from Mars. The description that’s given says that it was meant to be so large as to only be resolvable from space. Just that alone really struck me. I think it is just a perfect example of an exploration of legacy. 

I read that this was created, not too long after the death of his father, too, so could arguably also be seen as a memorial not just to the Atomic Dead, but to his father as well. It is also in the context of being in his own Museum which is a memorial to his legacy. It creates an additional layer for exploration of legacy, and for me really opens up the conversation for us to also discuss the legacies of Hibakusha. How can we carry that forward? There are so few of them left at this point, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was 76 years ago. Many of the Hibakusha still alive, are in their 80s, youngest. They can only live to continue to tell their stories for so long. A lot of organizations that I have spoken to that work with Hibakusha are always thinking of how to preserve their stories and their legacy. Then in the US context, what can the US do to honor the legacy of Hibakusha? Also finally acknowledge, respect, and honor our role in the legacy of nuclear weapons and in the creation of a worldwide Hibakusha?  For me that is taking an active role in trying to realize their wish to make sure no one else is the victim of nuclear weapons and that these weapons no longer exist. 

Dakin: Well, first of all, we are responsible and the idea that there should be some reparation is important. At the same time, it’s incredibly important to focus on education. As we’ve all talked about already through this, we’ve been miseducated or just not educated at all about our responsibility and the consequences of this string of events and decisions. What Noguchi offers so often in many different contexts is a long view. As a work of art, this piece is such an extraordinary thing because Noguchi is imagining it’s 50 million years from now and with the assumption that humanity is gone because we’ve obliterated ourselves. I’m taking that as a given, which I think he almost did at that point, as many people did assume that it was inevitable that humanity will destroy itself. His thought was to create a Memorial, a cenotaph to all of humanity with the thought that in the future, some alien race coming to our solar system, maybe the planet is still toxic. Maybe they land on Mars and view Earth and they will know something existed here. 

Yasmeen: I can understand why people thought that we were on the cusp of annihilation. At the height of the cold war the U.S. and USSR had over 70,000 nuclear weapons combined. But luckily through steady pressure and activism we have been able to reverse that trend until recently and hover around 14,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. But as long as they exist there is a risk that they will be used. Time does not necessarily equal success in the case of nuclear weapons not being used, a world without them is urgent. At the height of the cold war is also when we made the most progress, the deepest cuts to arsenal numbers and the strongest diplomatic solutions, now is the time to take action as we are again on the cusp of a new cold war. We don’t want to live in fear. Our legacies should be those of peace, not prepping for those of war. 

Dakin: You’re right, we need to take measures now to reduce risk and eliminate nuclear weapons. It happens all at once and then we’re going to be gone. We’re not getting a second chance. So let’s build a world without that chance and without nuclear weapons.

Molly: Thank you so much Dakin and Kate for allowing us [1 to 2 sentences of thanks]. As we mentioned there is a lot of work to be done to realize a world that noguchi wanted, one without nuclear weapons and in harmony with nature, but there are so many ways to plug in. If you were inspired to learn more about the U.S. nuclear system or get involved in changing it, you can find numerous ways to do so, from writing a letter to your representative to giving to sustain this work, at the Beyond the Bomb’s website Beyond www.beyondthebomb.org, together we can achieve peace through justice.